Competitive Shooting Explained: Types of Ammunition, Weight Difference, and Recoil

Competitive Shooting Explained: Types of Ammunition, Weight Difference, and Recoil

When most shooters start competing, they usually don’t spend much time worrying about their ammunition. Most new competitors just use their usual training ammo or whatever is cheapest.

That works just fine for most entry level competition. But, as you get more serious about competing, you start looking for ways to gain an edge, even a small one. Using the right ammunition can give you that edge.

And, if you’re just getting into competition, you might as well just skip ahead and start out using the best competition ammunition.

But, what is the best competition ammunition? Here’s how it breaks down.

Types of Ammunition

There are some competition-specific types of ammunition like synthetic jacket rounds. But, they’re pretty expensive, and there’s no solid data that shows they perform much better than traditional ammunition.

In terms of the projectile itself, full metal jacket rounds work just fine for handguns. Most full metal jacket ammunition is affordable, and it runs just as reliably as specialty ammunition.

When it comes to the casing, there are a few options: aluminum, steel, brass, and stainless steel. Aluminum and steel are not great. Brass is good. Stainless steel is best.

Aluminum and steel-cased ammunition is the least expensive. However, it’s prone to reliability issues because the aluminum and steel casings don’t extract as smoothly as brass or stainless steel.

Brass-cased ammunition has been the industry standard for decades, and it works well enough. Brass extracts reliably most of the time and delivers decent performance. However, it’s not perfect.

The gold standard for performance and reliability is stainless steel. Unlike standard steel-cased ammunition, stainless steel casings have a self-lubricating quality that ensures they extract cleanly from any handgun. This makes steel-cased ammunition the most reliable.

Now, rifle ammunition is a slightly different story.

Full metal jacket rounds are the best in rifles, too. But, a hollow-point boat tail bullet is the best shape. Most competition ammunition uses match-grade projectiles to provide the best precision and both short and long ranges.

Steel-cased ammunition has the same issues in rifles as it does in handguns.

However, brass-cased ammunition works well in rifles. Rifles have stronger extractors and more rearward force than handguns. So, long guns have no problem extracting brass casings.

So, in short: full metal jacket rounds work just fine. Use stainless steel-cased ammunition in your handgun, and use brass-cased ammunition in your rifle.

Bullet Weight

For competition, heavier bullets are better. Recoil will be covered in the next section. But, there’s another reason heavier bullets work better in competition: steel targets.

Not all competitions have steel targets. But, when they do, you’ll often need to knock the steel targets down.

With lighter handgun rounds, you may need to quickly put multiple rounds into a steel target to knock it down.

At close ranges, 55 and 62 grain rifle rounds usually don’t have this problem, because the velocity is so high. However, if you need to knock some steel down at longer distances, a light rifle round may not do the trick. And, it can be much more challenging to hit a target multiple times in quick succession at long range. So, this can be a real issue.

Heavier rounds are also affected less by wind. So, you’ll get better long range precision with your rifle if you use heavier rounds.

That’s why you want the heaviest round you can get for your caliber. This is the breakdown for the most common calibers:

147 grain for 9mm.

180 grain for .40 S&W.

230 grain for .45 ACP.

75 grain for 5.56/.223.

But, as with most rules, there’s an exception to this one.

If you’re competing with a pistol caliber carbine, you should go with a lighter bullet. Carbine gas systems, coupled with the longer barrels, on pistol caliber carbines functions more reliably with higher velocity rounds.

So, if you’re in the pistol caliber carbine division, the heaviest rounds you should run are 115 grain and 124 grain, for 9mm carbines.

In the end, use the heaviest round that will function reliably in your gun. The heavier rounds will knock down steel targets faster, and help you get the best scores.


Last but not least is the issue of recoil.

Most competitions demand that you shoot multiple round strings of fire. Managing recoil is critical to achieving accurate follow-up shots.

If you’re using the heaviest round you can get, you’re already getting pretty minimal recoil out of your ammunition. But, there are some other things that can help keep the recoil down.

First, use subsonic rounds. Many heavy rounds are already subsonic. But, you definitely don’t want a heavy round that shoots really fast. That makes for heavy recoil.

Just be careful to avoid ammunition that shoots so soft that it won’t dependably run the actions on your competition guns.

There’s also a bonus benefit to using subsonic rounds: they work great with suppressors because there’s no sonic boom from the bullet breaking the sound barrier.

Next, get ammunition with slow-burning powder. It’s a small detail. But it helps.

Most standard ammunition uses regular powder that burns very quickly, and delivers a snappy recoil impulse. Slow burning powder produces a more even recoil impulse that’s easier to control.

Most ammunition that features slow burning powder is designed for competition, and comes with a heavier bullet and a brass or stainless steel casing, all ready to go. You’ll hit all the proper points for getting the ammunition that will help you perform your best.

Power Factor

Power factor is a metric that many competitive organizations use to separate shooters into competitive divisions. The power factor is not dependent on caliber. It’s a matter of bullet weight and velocity.

Power factor is calculated by multiplying the bullet weight by the velocity, then dividing the product by 1000.

Power factor is another reason why it’s best to shoot a heavier bullet. If you use a very light bullet, it generally needs to shoot at a higher velocity to reach a high enough power factor. It’s a less efficient muzzle velocity for meeting power factor requirements, and it generates a snappier recoil impulse.

On the other hand, a heavier round will meet the power factor requirements at lower velocities.

Each competitive organization has their own power factor requirements for each division. Power factor requirements vary based on the handgun type, because different barrel lengths produce different velocities. So, they need to be fair.

But, if you shoot heavy bullets at subsonic velocities, your ammunition will most likely fall within the power factor limits. They have chronographs at most serious competitions, if you need to check, though.

Now, you need competition specific ammunition to compete? Not always. New shooters probably won’t notice the difference between regular plinking ammunition and competition ammo.

However, you will get better performance from competition-grade ammunition, which experienced shooters will notice and appreciate. Additionally, good competition ammunition is the easiest way to ensure that you’re in compliance with power factor restrictions.

So, make sure you’ve got the right stuff in your gun before you load and make ready for your next stage.

- Josh M


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